Tag Archives: Prayer

How to grow your love for God, part 3 (dealing with our fears)

17 Oct
Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

What do you fear?  Even if you are the kind of person who is not afraid of hardly anything, do you have concerns?  What bothers you?  Maybe your personality really struggles with fears.  I’ve talked in a previous post about my own struggles with anxiety. I’ve come to realize I have triggers: health and financial concerns, home repairs, and difficult relational situations can all intensify my struggle with fear and anxiety.  I’ve learned that it can be hard to love God in the midst of fear.  As we continue this series studying Deuteronomy 11, we’ve seen in the previous two posts that Moses is encouraging the people to grow their love for God.  If you haven’t read them, you might consider doing so, as they set the context for what we are going to study in this post.  Moses addresses a significant concern about loving God in the midst of fear. 

It seems that Deuteronomy 11 has 7 sections, and in the first three, Moses has been very positive.  But that positive tone changes in Section 4.  Look at verses 16-17.

The thing he wants them to do? In verse 16, he says, “do not to turn away from God or worship other gods.”  Warning! Red flag.

And why does he not want them to turn away from God? Moses is pretty clear.  In verse 17, he warns them, “then God will be angry and will not send rain, and you will not have food, and worse, you will perish from the Land.”

Yikes. Things just got negative.  But notice that this is the shortest section.  Moses doesn’t dwell on it.  He emphasizes the blessings, the positives, as he was a good leader like that.  No scare tactics here.  No heaping guilt.  But he does have to make them aware of the truth.  They need to be informed of what will happen if they turn away.  If they turn away from God, it will be disastrous for them.  This is some needed accountability.

But Moses doesn’t hammer on this.  Instead, he wants them to love and obey God, so he fills their hearts and minds with the many good reasons for following God’s way.  Thus, quickly, he returns to another positive section.

The fifth section is found in verses 18-21.

What is the thing he wants them to do? In verse 18, he has some practical advice about the commands of God.  He says, “fix these words in your hearts and minds.”

Why does he want them to do this?  He explains his reasoning in verses 19-21, “Teach them to your children…so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land.”

While this is the only section in which he doesn’t mention the word “commands”, that is what he wants them to fix to their hearts and minds.  When he uses the word “fix”, he is not referring to fixing something that is broken.  He is using “fix” in the sense of affixing something, putting something securely in place.  Those commands of God, and the ideas of loving God, serving him with all your heart and soul, those things should be fixed securely in place in your lives.  When you do that, he says, as he has said numerous times, the people will be fixed securely in the land for a long, long time.  Remember the axiom we talked about at the beginning of this series?  “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”  Do you see how what Moses is saying in this section might relate to that?  Before we go any further making that connection, we have a few more sections of Deuteronomy 11 to work through.  Keep following these posts, as we’ll discuss “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” soon!  For now, let’s take a look at Section 6.

If you’ve been tracking along with the previous 5 sections, there should be no surprise what we will find in Section 6, which is verses 22-25.

Guess the thing he wants them to do? Yeah, there it is again in verse 22: observe these commands, love the Lord, walk in his ways, hold fast to him. Sound familiar? 

And why does he want them to love God and observe his commands?  Think he can find any new reasons by now?  Well, he does.  In verse 23, he says God will drive out the nations before them.  In verse 24, God will enlarge their territory. And in verse 25, no one will be able to stand against them.  God is speaking to the fear in their hearts.  They had people in their camp who did not think it was a good idea to enter the Promised Land because the nations already there were so powerful.  There were some in Israel who were afraid, thinking this Promised Land idea was actually a suicide mission.  So here is God saying, “Yeah, there are nations larger and stronger than you. But they aren’t large enough or strong enough to deal with me.”  This directly relates to verses 8-9.  Remember that interesting “so that” phrase in verse 8?  There God says, “Observe my commands, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land.”  Here in verses 22-25 he is saying something very similar.  “Observe my commands, and I will give you victory.”  God will be their strength!

How do we grow our love for God in the midst of our fear?  We stay true to him, securely establishing his ways in our lives, and in the lives of the next generation. When we are faithful to him, when we follow his ways, he addresses our fear by saying that he will be with us and strengthen us.  God is not promising to make life perfect, but he is saying that in the middle of our fear and struggle, we can trust in him.  As we learned recently in the 1 Peter series, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”   I’m not saying that casting our anxiety on God is easy.  I still struggle with it.  But what we clearly see in these teachings from both the Old and New Testament is that we can depend on him in the middle of our fear.  I suspect that it will take effort, including some failures, but as we keep striving to trust in him, we will grow in our ability to know what to do and how to do it.  Keep striving!

For me, one practice that has been so helpful in striving to cast my anxiety on God is the habit of contemplative prayer.  If you are not familiar with contemplative prayer, I would recommend a guide.  For me, that guide has been in the form of books and phone apps.  Here are some recommendations:

First of all two books I would recommend are:

  • Into The Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation by Martin Laird
  • Be Silent. Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace With God Through Contemplative Prayer by Ed Czyewski

Also good are:

  • The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh
  • Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God by Dallas Willard
  • The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
  • Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom
  • Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggeman

As said above, I have noticed that I cannot just say internally, “I will practice contemplative prayer.”   I need a guide.  And for me, Czyewski’s suggestions of finding smartphone apps proved quite good. Here are the apps I use:

Calm.  A mentor recommended this. It attempts a non-sectarian approach to meditation, breathing, etc.  But you will hear from time to time, in the guided meditations, references to eastern religious thinkers.  I never found it to be anti-Christian, though.  I also found that I could adapt it to focus on Christ as needed.  The free version limits access.  One year I paid for a subscription and that was great.  If possible, I recommend that.  I think the recommendations about breathing are excellent, but rather than a Buddhist emptying of the mind approach to meditation, I simply replaced that a biblical filling of the mind kind of meditation on God’s word. See the Centering Prayer app below.  The 7 Days of Calm is a great place to start.

Sacred Space. This is a guided prayer app that combines meditation on Scripture and thoughtful questions about encountering the presence of God, based on the practice of St. Ignatius of Loyola.  I’ve been impressed.  But I’ve also found it is easy to skim through it super-fast.

Reimagining the Examen. This is another guided prayer app, specifically based on Ignatius’ Prayer of Examen.  It is topical, so each day a bit different, and yet always focuses on accountability for our thoughts and our relationship with the Lord.  More in depth than Sacred Space, I’ve found.  Maybe a good way to end the day.

Prayer Mate. A supplication app.  Great for organizing prayer requests.

Centering Prayer. Very simple app for connecting with the presence of God and listening for him.  Based on Centering Prayer, which I know some Christians find controversial.  Tim Keller, for example, in his book, Prayer, is really hesitant.  But I think his concerns are out of line.  As I have learned about contemplative prayer, I have started using this app daily and Calm less and less.

 

How to have loving diversity in a church family

9 Oct
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.  Sometimes church families are like any other family, and that means we can butt heads.  We don’t always see eye to eye.  With the exception of ethnic diversity, my congregational is quite a diverse.  Young and old.  Male and Female.  Rich and poor.  Conservative and Progressive.  Introvert and extrovert.  That diversity is a beautiful thing, but it means we often disagree.

In this post we continue through 1st Peter looking at chapter 4, verses 7-11, and Peter is talking about how church families can handle this kind of diversity.

Peter, in verse 7, starts by mentioning that “the end of all things is near.”  What end?  We’ve been having blood moons in recent years, and people talk about how blood moons signal that the end is near. 

When we think about end times, our minds jump to ideas like a rapture where Christians suddenly disappear, maybe a time of tribulation, or a great war called Armageddon, but did Peter think of “the end of all things” like that?  What images did he have in mind? 

Almost certainly Peter is referring to the return of Jesus.  We read in Acts 1, that right after Jesus returned to his father in heaven, angels appeared and told the disciples that Jesus would come back. But when?  Peter says “the end is near”?  Did Peter think that Jesus was going to return in his lifetime? Probably. The early church seemed to think this.  It is mentioned more than once in the NT writings.

Think about that, Peter said this 2000 years ago.  So does that mean Peter is misinformed or misguided?  I don’t think so. It is best to understand “near” in the sense of “it can happen anytime”.  As Jesus himself said to his disciples, “no one knows the time of his return, so be ready at all times.”  Jesus himself said that the Kingdom of Heaven in near.  “Near” is best understood as something that can happen at anytime, rather than something that will happen soon.  We don’t know when it will happen, but it could happen anytime.  So we must be ready.

Peter goes on to say that one way we show that we are ready for Jesus’ return is to be “sensible”.  In the NIV that word is translated as “clearminded” which is to have understanding about practical matters and thus able to act sensibly.

Peter also says that we show that we are ready for Jesus’ return by being “self-controlled”, and the word Peter uses means the opposite of getting drunk.  But he is not just talking about alcohol. One scholar defines this as “to behave with restraint and moderation, not permitting excess in general.” It is an attitude that affects action.  When we say that someone is sober-minded, we don’t mean that they are simply not getting drunk.  We mean that they have an attitude of self-control about their lives, and that attitude leads to self-controlled actions.  Peter is not just saying “don’t get drunk” or “don’t get high”.  He is saying something much larger or broad.  Be a self-controlled person. 

When Peter talks about self-control he is saying that we organize our lives in such a way to prioritize the mission of God’s Kingdom.  How do we do use self-control to focus our lives on the mission of God’s Kingdom?  Peter says that we pray. We make time in our lives for spiritual practices so we can know God more, depend on him, and make him the focus of our lives.  But Peter is not suggesting a legalistic, rigid approach.

I remember that when our two oldest were babies and toddlers; there were stretches where Michelle and I did not go to Sunday School because it was so difficult to get ready, and to place them in childcare for long stretches. Likewise, a friend recently told me the story about a phase in their lives where they had to get up really early for work, 5am.  She wanted to have time alone with God, maybe reading the Bible and praying. But given that work schedule, it wasn’t going to happen even earlier.  Every now and then I hear that we should sacrifice sleep in order to spend time with God.  I’ve come to believe that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is get good sleep.  So my friend said her devotional times were on her days off.  That’s okay.

What I’m saying is this: following the way of Jesus is not a legalistic thing.  There are phases in life where it will look different, but what should always remain is the self-control to put his ways, his principles, the fruit of the Spirit, first.  We won’t be perfect in that.  But, that is the goal.  To put his ways first.

Again, Peter says, “Because the end is near, be self-controlled, so that you can pray.”  I wouldn’t have expected that.  Why prayer?  If the end is near, shouldn’t Peter be telling people to get out on the streets to invite more people to follow Jesus?  I think Peter has something else in mind.  A memory.

Could Peter be transporting us once again back to the night Jesus was arrested in the Garden, the night before he was crucified?  We know that night was the most impactful and vivid of Peter’s life.  He had many incredible moments with Jesus, but that night was etched in Peter’s mind.  Remember what happened that night at the beginning of their time in the Garden?  Jesus brought his disciples to the Garden.  That alone was not unusual.  It was a walk outside the city and Luke tells us that in Jesus’ final week, he went out there every night to pray.

Then in Matthew we read that he asked Peter, James and John to break away from the group and go a little further into the Garden.  He said to them that he was overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death.  Jesus was really going through it, the anxiety was intense.  And specifically asks Peter, James and john to stay there and keep watch.   This is Matthew 26:38.  Jesus went a little farther from the disciples, fell with his face to the ground and prayed that famous prayer, “Father…not my will, but yours be done.”  We don’t know how long Jesus prayed.  If it was just the text Matthew gives us, it is a very short prayer.   I suspect it was a good bit longer, because Jesus mentions “one hour in the next verse.”  I also think it was a longer prayer because of what we learn next.

Matthew records that Jesus takes a break from praying, and goes back to check on Peter, James and John, and what does he find?  They are asleep. He wakes them, and Matthew mentions that Jesus specifically speaks to Peter, “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?…Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the body is weak.”  Then Jesus went back and prayed again, “Father…may your will be done.”  And again he checked on the disciples and again they were asleep. This time he didn’t wake them, instead returning to prayer, praying the same thing.  Finally Matthew says that he returned to the disciples a third time, waking them with, “Are you still sleeping and resting…Look, the hour is near.”  Just as he was saying those words, Judas, the betrayer, arrived with armed men to arrest Jesus.

I think Peter remembers that night quite well.  “The hour is near,” Jesus said.  The exact same words that Peter uses in 1 Peter 4.7!  “The end is near.”  Just as Jesus called Peter and the disciples to watch and pray, now Peter is calling Christians to be self-controlled and pray.

These are parallel situations.  Moments of intensity and ultimate destiny, and where Peter failed to be self-controlled and therefore did not pray, he wants something better for these Christians 30 years later. 

But again I ask, prayer?  Why prayer? Why then?

Because prayer roots us in the will and ways of God. Prayer says, “Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.”  Prayer is a submission to God.  Prayer is act that shows that we depend on God.  In the middle of crisis, prayer is especially vital.  Normally in crisis, we want to take matters into our own hands and resolve it.  Prayer, however, hits the pause button and refocuses our lives on God, who is the true power.  But when we are freaked out it is hard to pray!  Maybe when we are so distracted, so anxious, our minds are out of control and we can’t pray.  I have definitely felt that in moments of high anxiety.

We can be so emotional that we just can’t settle our minds enough to prayer.  I believe this is where Peter is going with this. He remembered his own failure and wants these people to learn to depend on God during moments of crisis.

Or we become so distracted by the things of this world that we set prayer aside.  We are literally too busy to pray, we say.  But I know for myself that, while I can say that I am so busy, and I feel so busy, I sure have time to watch TV daily, check the news on my phone.  So let us make more space in our lives for prayer.

With this foundation of depending on God in prayers, Peter builds on that in verse 8, returning to a theme that we have seen multiple times in the letter: that the church family should love one another deeply.  He quotes an Old Testament verse, Proverbs 10:12, “love covers a multitude of sins.”

This also quoted by James, and there are echoes of it in the famous love chapter 1 Cor. 13.  What does it mean, that love covers over a multitude of sins?  If you love someone you have to accept their sinful choices and be okay with them?  This is very picturesque word. In Proverbs, it is the image of love as clothing that covers over sin.  Forgiveness is very much a related concept, and in fact the Hebrew word used in Proverbs 10:12 is in some circumstances translated “forgive”.

Love can overlook faults, it doesn’t seek revenge, forgives.  Love gives grace, and it doesn’t seek perfection.  You know how some personalities rub you the wrong way? Love says that we accept the people who are difficult for us. 

Remember that proverbs are not promises.  Proverbs are principles that are generally true.  They hold true in most cases, but not in all cases.  So when Peter quotes this proverb, he knows that.  He is not trying to say that love means we should somehow turn a blind eye to sin.  What he is saying is that in a church family, we need to be gracious and forgiving.

But how do we know when to cover over the sin?  I would submit that a big part of the answer to that question is how the sinning person responds.  If they are repentant and humble and seeking to change, then let love cover over their sin.

But if they are unrepentant, repeating their behavior, unwilling to submit to correction, then the most loving thing to do is hold them accountable and create boundaries for them.

This is hard.  We are not people who like boundaries.  We flee boundaries.  We want chances to start over, wipe the slate the clean, as if the past was gone. 

What, then, does repentance look like?  I want to bring up a word called penance.  We need to be people of penance.  Penance means that you work hard to show you are sorry, that you are repentant.  You are willing to do the hard work to heal a broken relationship, make real changes in your attitude, actions, and lifestyle choices.

Have any of you watched The Crown on Netflix?  The final episode of season 2 tells the story of John Profumo.  Ever heard of him?  Profumo was the British Secretary of State for War in the 1960s and he fell into a sexual scandal that led to his resignation. 

Politicians and sex scandals.  Sadly, we’ve heard that before many times, right?  I read an article by writer AJ Jacobs who tells the untold story of what happened next that the episode of The Crown didn’t tell.  And where political sex scandals are commonplace, the untold part of the Profumo story is unheard of.  Still today.  Though Profumo was well-connected and likely could have gotten a cushy job, he left public life and never fully returned.  You know what he did?  He began to volunteer at Toynbee Hall, a charity in London that seeks to alleviate poverty.  He started by doing menial work, and over the decades…decades!…he became a primary fundraiser for the charity.  He never sought office again.  For the rest of his life he worked out of the public eye to serve the poor.  He did this for fifty years.  That’s penance.  He knew he did wrong and made changes in his life that showed that.

Peter now goes on in verse 9 to say that our love for one another should demonstrate itself in being hospitable to one another without grumbling.

Look around your life: who needs hospitality?  What is hospitality?  The specific word that Peter uses is to be a friend to strangers, but notice how he also qualifies this word by adding “one another.”  Showing hospitality to strangers.  What strangers?

There are strangers around us.  Refugees, tourists, and people in our neighborhoods and schools who we don’t know.  I have been particularly convicted lately about the lack of ethnic diversity in my life.  That concerns me because my local school district reports that it is 1/3 comprised of people of color.

Do we have eyes and hearts open to practice hospitality to strangers?  We Christians should be leading the way in that!  We should be known for that!

But remember Peter’s qualifier, “one another”.  He is primarily talking about how these Christians practiced hospitality or friendship with one another. The reality is that some people in our church family are strangers to you, or some feel very different from you.

In Peter’s day, these Christians were very counter-culture.  They were following a religion that was very new and considered a cult.  As we saw last week in verse 4, these Christians were facing abuse because they were following Jesus. 

So they had to break down the norms.  They had to create family where there was none before.  One author I read said this, “In certain cultures that are strongly family-oriented, the bringing of strangers into a house may be somewhat shocking.  Yet Christians overcome these conventions because God’s love has made them into a single great family.”

There is nothing wrong with spending a lot of time with people you find enjoyable and are close with.  But it is also important to reach out to those who you are different than you, even people you butt heads with, and you still reach out to them anyway and Peter says to do so without grumbling. 

That’s family isn’t it?  There are those within our natural families that are easier for us to connect with than others.  There are those within natural families that we want to be with more than others.  But, still we are family, and still those who are feeling alone, and those who are not, need to try to reach out to each other.

Then offer your friendship and hospitality, and this is the kicker!, without grumbling. I get it, helping people can be a great joy, but it can also get to a point where it can be tough. It can go on a long time, and over time the hospitality wears us down and we can grumble. Some people are easier to offer hospitality to than others.

But Christians are people who are self-controlled and loving and thus go beyond the difficulty and awkwardness!  We are people who serve, and we serve some more, and we sacrifice.  We get this strength to press on in love for the strangers among us by making time in prayer and by making the way of Jesus our priority.

That’s exactly where Peter goes next in verse 10. He says that you have each received a gift, and you are to use it to serve one another as a good steward of the manifold grace of God. What gifts?  They are received gifts.  Received from who?  God.  God has blessed each one us with a gift. And how are we to use these gifts?  To serve others.

When the NIV says “faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms,” Peter is using the word “steward”.  We are stewards of God’s grace.  Stewards are not owners.  We have been given a gift, but that doesn’t mean it is now our possession to do with what we want!  God is just giving it to us as a privilege and honor, and we are to use our gifts the way he would want them to be use. They are gifts of God’s grace, Peter says, gifts that are graciously given to us, and in various forms.

So in verse 11 Peter talks about the two main categories of gracious gifts that God gives us to steward.  Speaking gifts and serving gifts. Notice what kinds of gifts that Peter is not talking about.  Not the miraculous.  Not healing, not speaking in tongues, not prophesying. The gifts he is talking about are gifts that minister in a church family: speaking and serving

First of all the Speaking gifts.  What speaking?  Teaching, preaching. 

When we use the gift of teaching and preaching and speaking into someone’s life, Peter says, it is like an oracle of God.  Or speaking the very words of God.  Wow.  Does that mean if I speak, I am guaranteed to be speaking the words of God.  No.  But Peter is saying “do it AS one speaking,” meaning that we should see the weight and responsibility of it. The impact should be to glorify God, to encourage people in God’s direction.

Next are gifts of Serving. 

Who are you choosing to serve in our church family?  Who are you reaching out to?  Each of us should be ready and able to answer this.  Who are you serving?  Peter says, serve with the strength God provides, so that God may be praised through Christ.

Note that the focus on this is clearly God, for the use of both categories of gifts.  Peter wants the focus on God.   Not on ourselves.  Not on our comfort.  God and his ways are to be our priority.   As a pastor, I have the distinct blessing of being able to see so many ways that many in my church are reaching out, are serving, are sacrificial to others within this church family.  I am so grateful for that.  Keep at it.

So whether the person next to you in church is old or young, Democrat or Republican, male or female, and any other category, let us sacrificially love one another to keep our focus not on ourselves, but on God.

I want to end with this quote that my wife found in a Beth Moore study she’s doing.  In it she is speaking about discipleship, but I think you will see the connection.

“Discipleship involves a constant volleying between being apart and being a part. To pursue deeply satisfying intimacy with Christ, learning how to be apart from everyone else and alone with Him is a necessity. But discipleship also places a high premium on community and fellowship, on camaraderie and co-working. To know only how to be apart with Jesus but not a part of a holy partnership of believers leaves more than a deficit of human company…it also subtracts from our knowledge of Christ. Similarly, we are vastly less equipped in our effectiveness if we’re perpetual spiritual shut-ins. Isolation is not His way….One common cause of loneliness is the natural human tendency to limit our search for comrades to people who look or seem very much like us. We will miss what would have surely been some of our favorite people on earth if we don’t look beyond our mirror image in age, marital status, background, and personality.”

So we need to be working on our priority relationship with Jesus.  Time with him in prayer and time growing ourselves in HIS ways is so important.  From that foundation, then, we take those things we are learning, and we work them out with each other in our church family. So let’s be somber-minded and self-controlled as we focus on making his ways our priority.

How Distracted I Was From God (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 2)

19 Apr

Image result for distracted by screens

On January 1st, I started a sabbatical daily log.  On that day I wrote three paragraphs about what was happening in the life of the Kime Family, and mixed in there were these five words:

“I deactivated my Facebook account.”

For those of you who use Facebook, deactivating your account might feel like a big deal.  Especially if you use it a lot, like I did.

For those of you who don’t have Facebook, or rarely use it, you might be thinking, “no big deal.”

I urge you all to stay with me here.  Because there is more to the story.  The next part of the story happened this week.

I was at the pet store this week.  Buying dog food.  Row after row of choices…for my dog.  When we got him, he had been at the Humane League because his previous owners couldn’t care for him.  He was sick from drinking pond water on their property.  So the Humane League put him on special dog food for “Sensitive Digestion”.  In other words, my dog is a vegetarian, and there is dog food for that.

No surprise, though.  That is just like nearly any store, for nearly any product; we live in a society with so many choices.

We have been trained up from birth to be consumers.  We have been told by our society that we should have a lot of choices, that we should get to pick between 50 kinds of chips, or cars, or anything.  And so we have grown up under the influence of Consumerism, what Webster’s defines as “the theory that a greater progressive consumption of goods is beneficial.”

This applies to all of us: we are consumers in a consumerist society. We want our choices, we want to buy things, and when we use them up, we want more and better things.  Our approach to media is no different: we consume media.

We live in a media-soaked world.  I’m not just talking about social media, but also television, radio (especially talk radio), podcasts, sports, movies, publishing, music, and advertising.  Think about how much media you are exposed to in one day’s time.  Seriously, count it up.  How many hours of media do you consume every day?

In my own family, there can be some sort of screen/media, whether it is social media, Xbox, TV shows, Netflix, podcast, playing nearly all waking hours. There are times when we are watching TV on one big screen, working on our laptops with smaller screens, and checking our phones at the same time!

So when I think about the fact that I deactivated my Facebook account on January 1st, it is curious to me that in my sabbatical journal, all I said was those five words, “I deactivated my Facebook account.”

Why is that curious?  Because at the time, it felt like a bigger deal.  I thought there would be sirens or explosions or something.  But there was nothing.  I worried it would negatively affect my life.  But as far as I can tell, not having Facebook in my life, has not affected me negatively at all.  That surprised me.

Why?  Well, I had spent a lot of time on Facebook over the years.  I started in 2008, I think.  Over ten years, all the hours and hours reading posts, liking, sharing, and commenting.  Being in the know.  Posting, wanting people to like my posts, to share my posts.  Checking.  Updating.  Checking again.

Simply put, Facebook was a big part of my life.

That’s why deactivating it felt emotional.  Like I was cutting off something.  I would no longer be in the know.  But I had a sense that I needed to do this for sabbatical, so I did it.

I have been off Facebook for three and a half months, and I don’t think I’m going back.  Yeah, I miss out on things.  But if there is something important, Michelle lets me know. Just last week she told me about friends expecting a baby! She found out on Facebook. But since I deactivated my account, there have been surprisingly few important things that I missed. Instead I feel free.  More on that later in this post.

I feel free from Facebook, but there is more consumerism in my life than just Facebook.

As I looked over my sabbatical daily log, I found another trend. Last week I told you how the first trend in my sabbatical was the month of January as filled with comments about stress and anxiety.  The second thing that filled that first month was commentary about distraction.

I realized that I was a consumer of distraction.  Social media was only one way I was distracted.  How about you?  Are you a consumer of distraction?  And distraction from what?

A few days after I deactivated my Facebook account, I wrote this:

“I think right now, at this early phase of the sabbatical, I am realizing, painfully, how much distraction I have had in my life.  My life has been drowning in distraction. So as I think about sabbatical, what I have found thus far, in the brief moments I have removed distraction, is that I am alone with myself. And I can’t say that I like it.”

In those early days and weeks of sabbatical, once I had cleared away some distraction in my life, guess what I found?  I found a person with anxiety, a bit too cranky, a person looking for a distraction when I really needed to just be present for my family, or be alone with myself and my God.  All that anxiety I talked about last week?  I would use social media, TV, and phone games to try to distract myself from the anxiety.

I was surprised to learn that social media might have made it worse!

One report in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was the first nationally representative study exploring the link between social media use and depression. It looked at close to 2,000 people.

Each participant took an established depression assessment tool and answered questionnaires on social media use. This included the 11 most used platforms at the time: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Vine.

You know what the study found? The more time someone uses social media, the more likely that person is to be depressed.

Another study said that “all social media platforms use something called intermittent variable rewards.

“Imagine a slot machine. You pull the lever to win a prize, which is an intermittent action linked to a variable reward. Variable means you might win, or you might not. In the same way, you refresh your Facebook updates to see if you’ve won.

“What you are winning on social media?  A new follower, a comment, someone liking what you posted.  And what happens, the researchers found, is that you become more discouraged and depressed when people don’t give you the likes.  Just like slot machines, when it comes to getting rewards out of social media, you often lose more than you win.”

So, for me, what started out as a good way to connect with the kids in the youth group (that’s when I activated and started my FB account, when we were youth pastors here and interacting with the kids in youth group), became too much of a regular part of my day and world. I could scroll through the news feed endlessly. To justify that use of time, I would say that I was I was learning about how things are going with people.  But as I look back on it, I was mostly distracted.

I have no doubt that social media, screen time, talk radio, reading fiction books, or whatever is a distraction for you, is not all bad.  But it can become a major distraction.  What is a healthy balance to use of media?

That is a question each person needs to answer for themselves.  And it starts with simply admitting that you can be distracted.  For me, it was a battle in my mind.  I didn’t want to admit that I was so distracted by social media and phone games.

Ask yourself this: how distracted are you? If you are spending more time watching TV than you do with your family or with God, then perhaps that is a yellow flag for you.  Think about how much time you read books, listen to talk radio, watch movies and Netflix.  Are you giving loads of time to those things, but little to God?  That might be a yellow flag to investigate.

When we do a time study of our lives, will we find that we have been distracted from spending time with God and from spending time with the important people in our lives?

We are consumers who can very readily seek to satisfy the desires of our hearts, our longings, our need for satisfaction through distractions like social media, through sports, through television, through phone games, and we will find that those outlets do not satisfy.  There is one place to find the satisfaction we crave: in the presence of the Lord.

Do you ever feel that desire to be in the presence of the Lord, but it seems impossible or irrational? If we hear ourselves saying, or if we think to ourselves, that we feel distant from God, or that we don’t hear God speak, is it because we are so distracted?

During sabbatical, I read the book Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom, and here is a quote that hit me between the eyes, “God could complain about us a great deal more than we about him.  We complain that he does not make himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door, and we answer, “I am busy, I am sorry.” Or we do not answer at all because we do not hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain about the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than he ever is.”

When I thought about my life, I knew Bloom was describing me.  The way I treated God would have been a relationship-killer if it was a human.  Imagine that was how you treated your spouse, or your best friend.  Imagine you gave them only 5, 10, or 15 minutes each day, and during that short time, all you did was spout off a list of things you wanted them to do.  When you were done with your list, you said goodbye, and you didn’t talk with them again until you read a new list again the next day, and the next, and the next.  During any of these brief daily meetings you did not ask how they were doing, or listen to what they had to say.  How would that work out for your relationship?  It will kill that relationship.  And yet, Bloom says, that is how we can treat God, and have the gall to blame him for not talking to us.  I don’t know if that describes you. It sure did me.

But hear this amazing good news: Because of what Jesus did, through his death and resurrection, we can have access to God our father.  The God of the universe wants to be with us!  Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden walking and talking with God.  Think of the Prodigal Son returning home and his father wrapping his arms around his son in a huge welcoming hug.  These are pictures of what God wants.  And we can avail ourselves of that. We can spend time with him!

In Hebrews we read that Jesus is our great high priest who opened the door for us to have access to God.  That is good news!

In James we read “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” That is good news!

What do you need to do about the distraction in your life?  What do you need to do to spend time in God’s presence?  I invite you to take action.  For me, Facebook had to go.  Games on my phone had to go.  More distraction still might need to go.  I had to learn about listening prayer, and I had to open up space in my life to make room for it.

Another article I found described a recent experiment where people voluntarily opened space in their lives. “The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.

Conclusion: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.”

The author then shared numerous examples of how people’s lives, freed from distraction, improved:

–> An engineer realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).

–> A writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others.  “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.

–>  A retired stockbroker began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.

–> A PhD candidate described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”

–> A government worker replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the print edition of a newspaper. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.

Look at the amazing thing that happened when people removed distraction, and opened space in their lives!  Imagine what could happen if we do the same for God?

Maybe you’re not a social media person, will consider a break from TV?  Author Tim Willard gives the following advice:

First, you must be devoted to getting off your couch and turning the TV off. That’s step one. Stop trolling social media for people talking about the next new great show, ranting about how much they hate basically everything they don’t agree with.

It’s all digital noise, literally. Then shut off your TV for a year. See how that grabs you. One thing I switched up, I watercolor paint with my daughters every single night.

“But Tim, I don’t paint.” Excellent! Neither do I! Been afraid to my whole life. So, I got some good paints, good brushes, good paper, and I’m learning. I’ve missed maybe four days since the first of the year. The girls love it. We play classical music, light some incense, and laugh and compare paintings.

It’s the best parenting move I’ve done yet, I think.

I don’t watch television as it is. But this year, I’m not watching any programming. I stopped watching news channels and ordered a paper. It’s tough, and I’ve had to sacrifice, but it’s been so worth it. Ask my daughters.

Get some ideas, get devoted, and start doing things with real people, with your real hands. Make, create, mess up. It’s quite liberating.

Second, Willard says, Get radical and don’t look at your phone as soon as you roll out of bed. Let your first thirty minutes be making tea or coffee and reading something, like, I don’t know, a real Bible, or devotional, or something inspiring. Perhaps usually something by King David or that murderous chap, Paul.

I guarantee that if you attempt this, it will begin to rewire your brain. It will change your rhythm. And you’ll fight it at first. You’ll think you need to check the weather, or just hold your phone like “my precious.” But you don’t. Just be alive. Walk outside. And breathe deep the real analog world.

Third, Take a walk at lunch, and listen. What do you hear? Probably that’s the sounds of God rolling into your ears.

Fourth, listen to music.  Something quiet. Something that ministers to your frazzled spirit. I listen to Bach while I’m grabbing something to read. But most mornings, it’s just me, my tea, my Moleskine and the quiet blue morning.

You should read Tim’s whole article. There’s much more great advice.

What is one way you can remove distraction in your life today?  Then, and this is the exciting part, how will you use your freedom?  Be creative! Include God!

My life with anxiety and panic (What I Learned on Sabbatical, Part 1)

13 Apr

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A week before my sabbatical began, we went to see Star Wars.  It has become a family tradition these past three years.  My dad’s birthday is December 29th, and so he takes my brother, sister, me and our kids to see the movie together.  There were 14-15 of us this year!  I love being with my family, and I was so excited for the movie.  I love Star Wars.  Finally we were going to learn more about Luke Skywalker, and the movie was directed by a guy whose previous work I really like.  It was going to be great.

Except that it didn’t turn out great.  I’m not referring to the movie.  The movie was awesome.  I’m talking about me.  Halfway through the movie, sitting between my dad and sister, I started feeling feverish, shaking and sweating profusely.  I wondered to myself if my dad and sister could notice.  I really hoped they did not notice.  I was dripping sweat, feeling like I could vomit.  I didn’t want them to know.

After 10-15 minutes of this, I got up and walked out to use the restroom, wipe my face, and get a drink.  It helped, but back in my seat, I started shaking and sweating again, and couldn’t focus on the movie. I closed my eyes and tried breathing slowly.  I had grabbed some paper towels in the bathroom, so that helped with the sweating.  I don’t think I fully stopped shaking until hours later at home.

Was it the flu?  A fever?  Nope.

It was anxiety, panic.  Along with the physical symptoms I described, there was a swirling spiral of negative thoughts:  “Something is deeply wrong with me.  Am I about to have a heart attack?  Is this it? Am I going to die?”

If you’re thinking, “What in the world is he talking about?,” let me explain.  I am telling you that I struggle with anxiety and stress, and sometimes it results in panic attacks.  I have mentioned it only the slightest bit over the last few years.  Just a hint in a sermon or two.  But today I am telling the whole story.  Anxiety has been a very real part of my life since the summer of 2015. I’m telling you about it today because anxiety was the defining feature of my first month of sabbatical. I felt it was time to talk about it.

It is one of those parts of life that I am never quite sure if and when and how to talk about it.  It’s deeply personal, and Michelle and I have had to give a lot of thought and prayer into when would be the right time.  From the beginning of my struggle in 2015 I made our church leaders aware, as well as some close friends and long-term confidantes.  But quite frankly we weren’t sure how to talk about it in a public way because my anxiety stems from my role as pastor.  I don’t want to come across as accusatory to the church.  I also don’t want to come across as trying to start a pity party or a “poor me” article.  Michelle and I knew what we signed up for.  Pastoral ministry is fraught with intense situations, and often ones in which the pastor and his family are in the cross-hairs. I found the following stats:

  • 75% of pastors report being extremely or highly stressed.
  • 90% are fatigued and worn out every week
  • 50% report having a serious conflict with a parishioner every month
  • 80% will not be in ministry after 10 years
  • 70% are constantly fighting depression

We also get to experience many joys in being a pastor, pastor’s wife, and pastoral family.  It is a unique role, where you are uniquely involved in people’s lives.  The joy, the happiness, and brokenness, the pain.  All of it.

So in order to avoid coming across as accusatory or like I wanted a pity party, we felt it best not to share publicly.  Until now.  We decided that now is the time to share this for a few reasons. First, I hope I have communicated clearly enough that you already know that I am not perfect, but we felt it was time for you to know this particular struggle. Pastors are people too. Second, for those of you who also struggle with mental illness, with stress, anxiety, depression, and the like, we want you to know that there is hope!

So let’s go back a few years.  Really I need to go back a lot further than that.  Anxiousness and worry is a bit of a family trait.  I come by it somewhat genetically, and I’ve always, from a little child, had struggles with worrying, people-pleasing, perfectionism, and such.  If a relationship in my life was not going well, I took it hard.  In the first half of 2015 there were multiple very difficult multiple-year situations in the church that came to a head.  Our Leadership Team handled them with grace and truth and was amazing, and by June 2015 those situations were resolved.

Then there was the trip to Kenya, which was wonderful.  But as leader, I carried the weight of responsibility, and nearing the end of the trip, as we rode in the bus from Kijabe where Lamar & Janice live and work, headed to the capital city of Nairobi, I had a brief and less intense attack.  I had no idea what was going on, and figured it was motion sickness, or something with altitude change.

In the two weeks after the Kenya trip, I spent loads of time and energy trying to complete all the loan paperwork to get our eldest son money to go to college, another loan for a laptop, and my stress levels had only increased.  One morning, after working out, I dropped our middle son off at soccer practice, and started having pains in my chest.

That did me in.  Pretty much from that day mid-August 2015 for the following two months, I went through a nonstop stress-induced agony.  I couldn’t stop shaking, and I had tightness and pain in my chest.  The chest pains scared me, and the fear kicked off even more anxiety.  It was a vicious cycle.  I saw my doctor, and he ordered tests.  A plethora of medical tests all came up clear.  My doctor also prescribed Xanax, and it was a bit helpful, but the anxiety continued.

After a few weeks, my doc suggested a maintenance med for anxiety, Lexapro.  I started on it, and initially things got worse.  Lexapro caused was a weird burning sensation in my thigh.  I couldn’t sleep for the better part of three nights.  It was one of the worst experiences of my life.  I called the doc in a panic. He said press on, my body was just get used to the medication.  I had started counseling with my seminary prof, and I’ll never forget that first session when I was a mess, crying in his office.

But slowly my body got used to the Lexapro, and little by little, week by week, my anxiety subsided.  I could sleep again.  From time to time the pains continued, and they would get me scared.  I learned to fight those fears.  My heart was fine. The medical tests proved I was fine.  I was just stressed out.  Very stressed out.  And that wasn’t good.

So I continued counseling which was amazing. I learned so much.  I went back to working out after taking a month off.  I started reading books my counselor recommended to learn coping techniques.

Over the next 18 months I improved enough that in the Spring of 2017 I saw my doc again, and we agreed that I could go off Lexapro.  I started doing a gradual draw-down, and by summer I finished taking medication.  But really, while on the meds I had hardly any side effects.  So I want you to hear me clearly on this: for those struggling with mental illness, meds can be a lifesaver.  They were for me, and I would go back on them if needed.

Back to December 2017 at Penn Cinema, watching Star Wars.  That panic attack was a bit of shocker.  It wasn’t the first.  I’ve had a handful of them.  Though it was the strongest one since the initial instances in the summer of 2015.  I doubt it will be the last one.  I’ve learned I can’t totally predict when I will have an anxiety attack. And yet, that is not totally true. If I’m willing to give it some thought, I can read the signs.  For example, in the last month before sabbatical, I had a number of stressors.  Prep for sabbatical was the big one.  I wanted sabbatical to go really well for Faith Church.  So I was nervous about going on sabbatical.  That was on top of the regular, day in and day stressors of what being a pastor entails.

Take the intensity of Star Wars, combined with my excitement about it, laid on top of those work stressors, and there you have the warning signs.  That said, it doesn’t fully make sense to me why an anxiety attack would hit right then.  And it makes me angry because it ruined the movie.   But, one thing I have learned is that when the anxiety comes out it is rarely about what is actually happening when it appears. It has been building, and I have not been pausing and working through stress as it occurs, and then it just erupts. My body is saying to me “enough!”

A few days after the movie, sabbatical started. As I read through my sabbatical journal this in preparation for this sermon, I was blown away by how much I mentioned stress and anxiety throughout the month of January.  If you thought that I went on sabbatical January 1st and was able to have a sigh of relief and peace, you were wrong.  My stress and anxiety got worse when sabbatical started.

Here is what I wrote on January 14th: “I have no reason to feel anxiety, stress, shaking, nervousness.  And yet it is there.  I don’t know what it is like for a person going through withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.  But I’ve seen the dramatic depictions on TV or movies, and I’ve read accounts in books.  No doubt those are different kinds of withdrawal than what I am experiencing.  But I feel something similar.”

I didn’t have another panic attack during those first two weeks, but I had a heightened level of anxiety and stress, a shakiness and nervousness that lingered pretty much the whole time.  And then something eye-opening happened.

We had our small group on Friday January 12.  I felt anxiety most of the day Friday, but as our friends walked in the house, and we sat around our table, the anxiety and tightness in my chest and arm all but dissipated.  Inwardly I recognized it right away and thought, “Woah…what just happened?” You might think it was good that I found peace, and it was.  But to have two straight weeks of stress and anxiousness, and then in a matter of minutes have it be gone?  It was weird.  What was happening to me?

The thought came to mind that in those first few weeks of sabbatical I had been experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.  Actual physical symptoms of withdrawal.  Like I was in a kind of detox.  It was so interesting that my symptoms just about disappeared during Care Group.  Why?

I think it is a combination of things.  First, I think Care Group was a distraction from my thoughts, from being with myself.  During Care Group I am focused on other people, on the conversation, on the study.  And that is okay.  Those are good things. I don’t think all distractions are bad.  And it might not even be fair to call it a distraction.  Care Group is an activity that is healthy.

Second, it could be that Care Group was a brief return to my “job”.  Like a drug addict getting a fix.  It was eerie how fast it happened that night.

What was going on inside me during those first few weeks?  I call it “feeling stressy” or “anxious”, but it is not just a typical kind of feeling stress on anxiety.  Instead it is the downward spiral of thoughts that gets worse and worse.  In the two weeks prior I had allowed too much self-focus can turn to wallowing. It’s good to know what’s going on in my life, but not healthy to be so self-focused.  Care Group, in part, turned my thoughts outward.

Care Group didn’t cure me.  The stress came right back the next day.  As the month of January went on, I had much time to reflect on my anxiety.  What I have learned is that I have situational anxiety.  Meaning, if I have nothing stressful going on in my life, I generally feel at peace.  But if I have stress going on, my body now reacts, and quickly.

The point, then, is learning how to deal with stress in a way that is faithful to God.  There are many ways to deal with stress.  Not all of them are faithful.  Our world is full of unhealthy and sometimes destructive ways to cope with stress and anxiety.  You and I know them and can list them.

For me, I would often distract myself with my phone.  Social media.  Games.  I started sabbatical, though, knowing I needed to bring my struggle with anxiety before God in a new way.   Looking back over the last few years, I can see an arc of progress, healing and hope.  But I also knew that things could be way better.

So on January 1st, I got rid of all the games, and I deactivated my Facebook account.  I had no sermon to write, no meetings, no emails, no visits, no phone calls, no office to get away to.  I had nothing distracting me.  For the first time in a long time, I was alone with myself, my family and God, and my stress.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have had a practice of personal devotions, studying scripture, and spending time in prayer.  So why did experience God in a new way during sabbatical?  What was new was that everything else I was using to distract myself from stress and anxiety was gone.  I was feeling it all the time, and that intensified the battle in my mind.  So I started reading and practicing new prayer disciplines.  Trying to sit more in God’s presence and listen.  A friend from church gave me the book Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An anxious evangelical finds peace with God through contemplative prayer, which gave some very solid advice.  I read The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a world of Distraction, which was so helpful.

Then at on my first three-day personal retreat Twin Pines I had the first deep opportunity to learn and practice the presence of God in a more sustained way.  That retreat was at the end of the first month of sabbatical, and it was the turning point.  I could literally feel the stress subside as I turned the corner and drove onto Twin Pine’s campus.  I realized I should have been doing personal retreats with God for years.  I had talked about doing them, and I never did.

As a result, I can tell you that the second and third months of sabbatical were very different from the first.

Consider with me Philippians 4:6-7 where Paul says “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

You read a verse like that and it is easy to think that anxiety is wrong.  Sinful.  Did Paul mean that true Christians won’t struggle with anxiety?  And if we do struggle with anxiety then are we bad followers of Jesus who don’t trust in him?  What Christian hasn’t had at least a little bit of anxiety, stress, worry?  Maybe the rare person?

For many years I had a mindset that Christians should not struggle with anxiety to the point of taking meds or seeing a counselor.  There is within Christian circles an unwritten expectation that we have to put on a smile and give a false expression that things are okay.  No doubt, as Christians we are called to rejoice, be joyful, glad.  But does that mean we should never feel anxiety?

There have been Christians through the ages that have committed the heresy of docetism, denying the humanity of Christ, saying that his perfection meant that that he didn’t feel pain, didn’t have stress or anxiety.  That is heresy.

Consider Hebrews 2:14-17 which teaches that Jesus “…shared in [our] humanity…” and that “he had to be made like [us], fully human in every way…” and that “[b]ecause he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

I would submit to you that that was one reason Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane right before he was arrested was purposefully included in the Bible to show us in very clear terms that he too went through anxiety and stress.

Philippians 4:6-7 doesn’t mean, therefore, that the presence of anxiety and stress and worry in your life means that you are sinful.  Jesus had it in his life too.  We certainly saw him frustrated with people and showing that emotion, and stress usually comes with frustration. Instead Philippians 4:6-7 is a wonderful teaching for those in the middle of anxiety, that there is hope, that we can do something about it.  We should take our concerns to the Lord, with thanksgiving, and seek him for peace.

Peter says something very similar in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast your cares on him, because he cares for you.”

When you lose a loved one, for example, you will still feel grief and anxiety. It doesn’t mean that you are not a true Christian or a spiritual person.  Take your situation to the Lord and seek peace in him.

Another wonderful teaching is James 1 which says, “consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds”.  Consider it joy?  I hate hard times.  I want them to stop.  Why would I ever consider them joy?  Well, James is saying, in other words, use your mind to control your emotions.  That is nearly identical to a therapeutic method called CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically it can be summarized as “Tell yourself the truth.”

That one is hard for me.  Anxiety is a battle in my mind.  Just ask Michelle; she’s needed to be a teller of truth in this area to me for most of our marriage, and certainly for our 15 years here at Faith Church. I have learned, though, that telling ourselves the truth is possible.

Psalm 46:10 is another classic reminder of how to tell ourselves the truth: “Be still and know that I am God.” The psalmist tells us that we can trust in God.  Sometimes we just need to stop what we are doing and reflect on that.  In the midst of stress and anxiety, we tend to be very frantic and forgetful of reality.  But to be still means that we need to sit with God.  It takes time, it takes effort and it takes work to bestill before God and to tell ourselves the truth of who he is and what he has done.

In conclusion, let me say that I am not perfect.  I am not healed.

Sabbatical didn’t cure me.  That wasn’t the purpose of sabbatical.  But I do think I learned a lot.  In particular that I need to “be still and know that God is God” on a regular basis.  I need to get away and spend time with God.  My two personal retreats at Twin Pines were so good.  For years I said that I needed to do that, but never took it seriously.  Now I plan to take a personal retreat at Twin Pines every six months.

I also learned that I need to practice prayer disciplines of sitting before God daily, still, quiet, listening.  I certainly was a pastor who prayed.  But I need to become a pastor, a person, who is praying differently. For sabbatical I got rid of all social media and games on my phone to rid myself of those distractions.  I am committed to not bringing them back, and to replacing that time with more prayer, especially listening prayer.

Another helpful practice is to learn about anxiety. I started reading the book The End of Worry, and I encourage you to do the same.  Learn about stress and anxiety.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.

Also, exercise!  God made us to move!  And when we move, it has scientifically proven emotional benefits.

Finally, if you are feeling like you are losing the battle with anxiety and stress, please talk it over with your doctor, about the possibility of medicine as part of the solution.   Get in touch with professional counselors.  Some of you may need to change your view on the importance of medicine and counseling.  And, sit with our God.  Sit with Jesus.  Learn to rest in Him in a new way.

So, I am back…and there will be and there will be more difficult and stressful situations, as ministry is hard. But I feel excited about what God has taught me about this battle and I am excited to jump back in with these new habits and lessons He has graciously taught me. Thus I invite you to join me in addressing stress and anxiety in your life.

A Guided Lament you can use right now

21 Dec

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Do we lament when life is so rotten and dark that we have no where else to turn?  Yes.

Do we lament when there is still hope, but much work yet to be done?  Yes.

What we have seen this Advent as we’ve studied psalms of lament, is that lament is a faithful, clinging to God, an emotional plea asking him to intervene.

When we lament, we pray, “How long O Lord?” because we are waiting for him in the midst of our pain.

When we lament we are asking God to restore and revive us.

As you read this post, you may be at your wits’ end.  And you might not be.  No matter if you are going through a difficult time, or if things are relatively good, I encourage you to practice lament.  Include lament as a regular part of your prayer.  So what I’ve created below is a guide that you can use to help you lament.

Maybe even take the guide and use it to lament with your family or small group.  When we used this guide during our worship service at Faith Church, I read a section, then gave a few minutes for people to lament.  I invited our church family to lament out loud if the wanted.  Some did!  Most prayed quietly to themselves.

You’ll notice that the guided lament below starts broadly, lamenting for our world, and then gradually narrows, finishing with a lament for yourself.  Feel free to read over the brief description I’ve created ahead.  You might want to personalize, add to it, totally change it!  What I have listed below is just a guide.

So find a quiet place, away from distractions.  You might want to put your phone on airplane mode, light a candle, and take a few deep breaths.  Maybe read Psalm 126 again.  And then when you’re ready, address your lament to God.

Lament for our world

Lament for our world.  Lament for the refugees without a home, often scraping together an sparsee existence in a war-torn camp.  Lament for the families around the world who have lost loved ones because of terrorist attacks. Lament for fractures that run deep between people and nations in our world.

Lament for our country

Lament for our country.  Lament for the homeless who wonder how they’ll survive the winter.  Lament for damage that sexual predators have caused.  Lament for the pain caused by mass shootings.  Lament for communities devastated by flood and fire.

Lament for your community

Lament for your community.  Lament for the hungry coming to food banks for help.  Lament for the people living in motels.  Lament for broken families and how deeply it affects children. Lament for the many in our community who do not know Jesus.

Lament for your church

Lament for your church.  Lament for those in your church family who have been experiencing physical pain for many months and years.  Lament for the families that have dealt with a different kind of pain, the pain of loss and brokenness in its many forms.

Lament for your family

Lament for your family and all the difficulties you’re facing.

Lament for yourself

Lament for yourself.

When Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough

5 Dec

Image result for thoughts and prayers are not enoughIn the morning, my family has a routine.  Our two kids still at home, one middle schooler, one elementary, get ready for school while we are watching the local news.  Then at 7am we switch over to CBS for their morning show.  A few days ago, we were surprised to hear that CBS fired one of their anchors, Charlie Rose, because of sexual misconduct.

Then a few days after that, we were watching the same program when they reported that NBC had just fired one of the Today Show anchors, Matt Lauer, for the same reason.

It seems like a new allegation and firing occurs every day.  That the truth is coming out and people are being held accountable is incredibly important and good.  A necessary purging, hopefully leading to deep change in our society.

But on top of the reports of sexual misconduct there have also been mass shootings pretty much every day.  In malls, schools, movie theaters, at concerts, in churches.

As we hear about these abusers and tragedies, we can’t help but think that the world is a dark place.  We can become despondent, confused.  How do we respond to darkness, to tragedy?  What should we think and feel?  What should we do?

One of the first responses to tragedy that we hear is, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Praying for people is good thing.  You see it on Facebook, in the news, on the lips of politicians.  Prayer rising up out of the ashes of tragedy.

In that sense, “Thoughts and Prayers” is a good thing.

But after one of the recent shootings, the idea of “thoughts and prayers” was called into question. The shooting happened, and almost as soon as the news was reported, people started posting “thoughts and prayers” on Facebook.

“Las Vegas, our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

But this time that sentiment, which is a good thing, was called into question.  Why?  Maybe people had reached a point where things had gotten so bad, that they had enough.  Maybe some people felt that “thoughts and prayers” was nice, but other action needed to be taken.  “Thoughts and prayers” has been called into question many times before, especially when “thoughts and prayers” are uttered by people who could potentially do something to stop or decrease the tragedies, but don’t.  And that makes people very upset.

I am going to agree with them today.  Other action does need to be taken.

Hear me out.  The critique I’ve heard says that “thoughts and prayers” are not enough because something additional needs to happen around gun laws.  Lives are so easily cut down by guns, thus  motivating the critique of “thoughts and prayers.”

I’m not going to talk about gun laws today.  Might be a topic for another time!

Today, though, I am going to agree with the critique of “thoughts and prayers.” I’m going to say that “thoughts and prayers” are good, but not enough.   There is another form of prayer that is so often missing.

That prayer is called lament.

Do you ever pray prayers of lament?  I rarely do.  I hardly even know what lament means.  And yet, lament is very much a common kind of prayer in the Bible. There is a whole book of the Bible called Lamentations, for goodness sake! Lament is especially prevalent in the Psalms.  One scholar I found claimed that more than 50% of the Psalms are lament.

And yet, I suspect many of us do not know about lament.  What is lament?

I suspect that we confuse lament with regret over a bad choice.  If something is lamentable, we mostly, I think, mean that we feel someone made a bad choice.  A error.  The words “lament” and “regret” are related no doubt, but they have different meanings.  Regret is when you are upset about a bad choice you made and you wish you could change it.  Lament is a bit different.  And I think the difference is why we so often have regrets, but we don’t lament.

Lament is defined as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow; mourning.”

We know about this when we mourn the loss of loved ones.  But lament takes things further.  And that is what we see in these psalms that we will study in Advent.

As I said earlier, when there is a tragedy, we often respond by saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you.”  Prayer for those going through tragedy is good.  I think, though, that we need to add lament to our thoughts and prayers.

Lament is something that we don’t hear about in the face of national tragedy.  How is lament different from “thoughts and prayers”?

Andy Crouch in an article in Christianity Today says: “An equally valid and instinctive form of prayer in the face of tragedy is lament, which calls out in anguish to God, asking why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. Lament confronts God with his seeming inaction and distance. This is a profound response of faith. Far from being unchristian, it is actually the prayer offered by Jesus himself on the Cross: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

So this Advent at Faith Church we are going to learn about lament in the psalms.

In our next post, the first psalm of lament we’ll be studying is Psalm 80.

Practical suggestions to help you pray

5 Jun

Image result for prayerThis winter/spring I read an amazing book on prayer I wish I had come across years ago.  It is called Prayer: Conversing with God by a missionary named Rosalind Rinker.  She first published it in 1959, but it is so relevant.  Could have been written yesterday.  Easily one of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read.

She talks about her early experiences on a missionary team, when they had staff prayer meetings:

“We were all together on our knees in the same room, each with love for the other, and each with a common purpose. But I began to realize we were each making a little speech to the Lord when our turn came. I know we were supposed to pray silently with the one who was praying audibly, but when we all covered the same ground — well, I found that I was trying to think how I could start my prayer with more “colorful” words. How I could put more “action” into my prayer, how I could make it sound more “spiritual,” and how I could take hold of the promises with more faith than the others. I wanted to word it differently from the persons who had prayed before me, and make it sound more important and interesting.”

That spoke to me.  I’ve had the same thoughts many times.  As if the prayer time was a showcase of spirituality.  Who could get the most “Amens” or “Yes, Lords”?  I’m guilty of those thoughts each month when I attend my local ministerium prayer meeting or my denominational district pastors’ prayer lunch.  There are buzzwords you can pray and you know you will get a reaction!  Start talking about revival in your prayer, that’s guaranteed to get you some “Amens!”.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker goes on to say:

“I used to choose a chair near the bookcases, so that when things got dull, I could quietly glance through the shelves and make a mental note, and often a penciled note, of the books I wanted to read.  Then there were the times I actually pulled out a book, and using my jacket around my shoulders as a shield, leafed through some of the books during the prayer meeting.  Sometimes I just plain fell asleep on my knees during those long sessions of prayer. After my turn was over, it wasn’t too hard to do.”

Yup.  Been there too.  When prayer becomes performance, who cares if we pay attention.  But is that how we should pray?

Rinker says that her relationship with God, and thus her practice of prayer, was revolutionized when she discovered that God desires us to talk with him as a friend.  If you read through Exodus, you see the example of Moses and God and how they talked.  It is amazing.  Real friendship.  Real conversation. And in fact in Exodus 33:11, we read “God talked with Moses face to face, as a man talks with his friend.”  You read through the Psalms, and you see David is like that too.  You watch the example of Jesus, and it is the same.  Real conversation in prayer.  Real emotion.  Truth.  Honesty. That’s how we should talk with God.

But what about rote prayers?  If we are supposed to talk with God as a friend, does that mean it is wrong to read or repeat prayers?   Hear me clearly: recited prayers, memorized or read, are not wrong.  In fact, I think they can be very helpful, and we probably need to use them a lot more than we do.

A resource like the Book of Common Prayer is excellent, and I would suggest you all use it, as least from time to time.  There are also numerous BCP apps for your smart phone.  You might look into other prayer books too, and there are many biblical prayers that are fantastic.  There is nothing wrong, for example, with saying the Lord’s Prayer every day, every worship service, as long as your heart is in it!

Along with that kind of written prayer, I believe that conversational, unprepared, ad lib prayer is also very important.   This is where Rosalind Rinker’s book is so helpful.  She has loads of excellent practical suggestions for how to have great conversations with God.

From time to time I hear the argument that says “Well, isn’t prayer unnecessary, because God already knows our thoughts and our needs and everything about us?”  God does know all that.  But that’s pretty one-sided isn’t it?  A real relationship involves equal give and take, both friends communicating as much as possible. How do you think God would feel if we never or rarely make an effort to talk with him?

Therefore, God desires us to be persistent and consistent in prayer.

David says in Psalm 5 that he prays in the morning and watches for God to answer.  I encourage you to read that this week.

Then there is the parable Jesus told in Luke 18 about the widow.  Another one to read this week.  Parables can sometimes be hard to understand, but Luke tells us exactly what Jesus was trying to accomplish in that parable. In Luke 18:1 he writes “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

You know what that means?  Prayer takes energy, investment, and commitment.  When I took prayer class in college, I heard a phrase that shocked me “prayer is hard work.”

It seems wrong to say “prayer is hard work”.  But anytime you do anything consistently and persistently, it can feel like hard work.  So let’s not fool ourselves by saying that prayer is supposed to be simple or carefree or effortless.  A healthy practice of prayer, like any healthy relationship will take work.

Here’s the beautiful thing, though.  Hard work can become heavenly.  How many of you have had the experience of learning to love and enjoy hard work?  Whether it is straight up physical labor, exercising, practicing a sport or maybe a musical instrument, you can grow to enjoy it.  Say you are on a sports team.  After you practice and practice, and after you put in the hard work, how many have found it to become delightful?

Jesus’ disciples once asked him “Teach us pray.”  Great question. That’s what this sermon is all about.  We want to learn How to Pray.  So, what should you actually do?  What will this hard work of prayer look like?  And will you work at it, practice it, till it becomes delightful to be in such regular, wonderful conversation with God?

Here are some practical suggestions:

  1. Plan to pray.  Carve out time.  It could mean cutting out something to make room for prayer.  I recently read an article where a guy made a commitment to wake up at 5am every day for a year.   Not necessarily to pray.  But it changed his life.  Would you wake up early to make time for prayer?  That might work for you.  Or would you cut out time on Facebook in order to have time to pray? In Matthew 6, right before he teaches the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus suggests that when we prayer, we get alone, be in secret, talk with God.  When I was a student at LBC, I used the private music listening booths in the library.
  2. Write down prayer requests.  Keep a journal.  I found a great free prayer app this week.  Prayer Mate.  It is available for both iPhones and Androids.
  3. Pray God’s word.  Write down this reference.  I preached it on Easter.  Ephesians 1:17-19.  Then the most famous prayer of all is the Lord’s Prayer.  Matthew 6:9-13.  Memorize it.  Use it both as a word-for-word prayer, but also as a model for prayer.  Take note of the elements that Jesus includes in the Lord’s Prayer.  Praise, Confessing sins, Requests, Thanksgiving.  Then go to the Psalms.  We need a steady diet of the Psalms.
  4. Just start talking.  Know that God loves you, that he is your friend.  And just start talking to him.  Tell him everything.  Have a conversation with him exactly like you do with your friends.  In a group setting, can I challenge you to take a risky step and pray out loud.  Even if it is just one sentence.

Learning to how to pray is not going to happen by reading a blog post or book about prayer.  If you want to learn how to pray, it all boils down to just starting.  Make a practical goal for yourself this week.

My personal goal is prayer walks through the church.  I need to get started.  When I walk through the various rooms and hallways of the church building, it reminds me to pray for various ministries, groups and people in our church family.  In the lobby, I see our Summer Lunch Club volunteer sign-up table.  That reminds me to pray for all the volunteers and participants in a wonderful outreach the helps families in need.  Down the hall, I walk past the nursery and I think about all the families in our congregation raising young children.  I pray for them during what is an emotionally and physically exhausting period of life.  Around the corner, I see the offices of The Door Christian Fellowship, an amazing congregation that rents space from Faith Church.  We’ve deeply appreciated our partnership with The Door, and I pray that God blesses them.  And on and on the prayer goes.

How about you?  What will you to work on prayer?

Here’s my one big action step I’d like you to consider.  Get a trainer.  Be a trainer.  Yup, just as you would get a trainer for your physical health, get a spiritual trainer to learn how to pray.  Jesus once said, “Where 2 or 3 are together, there am I with them.”  When you get together with people to pray, he is there.  What an outstanding promise!  So who will train you to pray?  Or, who will you train?

Then add Rosalind Rinker’s book to this.  Each of you get the book, and read one chapter per week.  Get together for an hour per week, and take 30 minutes to review the chapter, then take 30 minutes to pray.

Get started.  With expectancy.

With any habit, it can take a while for it to feel more comfortable. But that is the nature of anything you want to grow in.  Practice.  Practice. Practice.

You can see such a difference in people that practice.  Whether it is a musical instrument or athletics.  There is such a connection to the spiritual life.  We are not just spirits.  We are bodies too, so how we use our bodies affects our spirit.  That’s why we need to practice spiritually.

Remember God’s grace.  You don’t have to pray perfectly.  God doesn’t care about that.  Just start talking with him. Share your thoughts with him, and do it consistently.  It might feel awkward, but push through.  That’s what practice is like.  And watch your conversations with God grow and flourish.